This Fortress World

This Fortress World - James E. Gunn; 1979

This Fortress World – James E. Gunn; 1979

James Gunn’s first novel, This Fortress World, was published in 1955.  I read the Berkley 1979 edition of the paperback – which, of all the publications, I think is the best cover art.  I have not been able to ascertain who the cover artist was – but I do really like this cover art.  And it is not necessarily just this particular piece.  Any comic book cover that resembles the basic structure of this cover is something that will also draw my attention.  Another example:  Glen Cook’s The Black Company cover.

When trying out a new author, I like to start with their first work.  Generally, this has either become their magnum opus – or they have nowhere to go but up, so to speak.  Also, it soothes all of my pseudo-OCD feelings on the matter.  So, naturally, thinking highly of the cover and knowing this is Gunn’s first novel, it was the obvious choice for my next read.

Surprisingly, this is not the most well-read novel.  I figured that I would find heaps of reviews of this.  I, of course, found some, however not as many as I expected.  Interestingly, the ones I found seemed to be very opposing in their overall rating.  At first this looked odd, but after reading the novel I can completely understand this disparity.

It is a difficult novel.  I enjoyed the first few chapters.  The story and characters were engaging, interesting, and this novel seemed to have a lot of good things going for it. However, I had the feeling that a certain viewpoint/ideology was being espoused – one that I am not too sympathetic toward.  This disappointed me, but I read onward.  Just because I disagree with something does not mean I will not read it. But then, around the middle of the book, everything seemed to get bizarre and I felt that the author really had no clear-cut direction of where he was taking this novel.  Threads of the story seemed to get lost or change.  And there are a few scenes that are a bit strange – unless you have some psychoanalysis in your academic background. I mean, why do authors love to torture characters?  But not, as PKD does, in an offbeat and kosmological way.  Instead it is always:  in a dank cell, naked, with torture devices. I could live without a whole lot of this particular trope. . . .

Anyway, much of the story itself involves escape/evasion/chase.  The novel is written in the first-person.  We meet William Dane immediately, looking much like the cover art here.  William is an acolyte at the monastery/cathedral.  Because he is an acolyte, I assumed he is between 15 and 25 years old.  I cannot recall the novel sharing his age with the reader – if it did, I missed it.  This is one problem that I have with the novel:  sometimes William seems too capable for someone so young. Maybe his innocence and youth are what help him succeed? However, does his name mean anything to you? It was familiar to me in a dusty way. It finally came to me after reading the book: Cp. Silas Marner.

So what is this novel about?  Telepathy.  It is also a really hopeful, futuristic conception of humanity.  It is also a love story.  And it is also a “chase/escape” plot.  It is about fortresses – personal, architectural, moral, etc. But – most important – I believe this is an entire novel about READING!  (Chapter 6 contains some of this!)

The writing is not so good.  The ideas are good – whenever there is also a consistency and continuance.  When events happen at random, or there are obvious “changes” that don’t mesh so well, the ideas seem forced.  Two things must be said:  the viewpoint that I thought was being demonstrated (the viewpoint that I disliked) actually was not being put forth.  Or, it was, but not in the expected way – in a way that is actually positive and redeeming.  Color me surprised.  In some ways, it is the opposite of the viewpoint that I suspected I was going to be dealing with!  Very tricksy, Gunn!  Also, while the middle chunk of the novel is not great, the last several chapters are quite good; matched with the first few – this would be a 4.5 – 5 star read.  The resolution is interesting and impressive – especially after the middle section.  And I enjoyed it quite a bit.

From late in the novel:

And so we have the fortress psychology which pervades everything.  It means isolation, fear of attack, hatred of the alien.  It means strong, centralized governments. It means concentrations of power, wealthy, and authority.  It means oppressed populations, looking ignorantly, hopefully, fearfully to superiors for defense and order.  It means stagnation, decay, and slow rot which will eventually destroy all semblance of human civilization as technical skill and knowledge are destroyed or forgotten and the links between worlds are broken.   (pg. 193)

Honestly, many readers will hate this novel.  The writing is not good.  The subject matter is not contained enough and seems to try to include too much in such a short novel.  Nevertheless, even if it is not perfect, many readers will also like this novel for presenting the positive, hopeful, and revolutionary feelings for humankind in the far future.  Also:  telepathy.

4 stars

Marooned On Mars

Marooned on Mars – Lester Del Rey; Paperback Library; 1967

Vintage Science Fiction Month

Marooned on Mars by Lester Del Rey was first published in 1952.   In various encyclopedias and listings, one finds this novel categorized as “juvenile” science fiction.  What that means, I think, is that this is basically a young adult novel (nowadays we call it YA).  However, I do not think that any of this is entirely locked-down, written-in-stone stuff.  Why is it called “juvenile”?  Because the main character is a young lad of 17/18 years old.  I guess, too, because there is not any cussing or wild sex scenes.  Some readers might suggest that the writing level is geared toward a younger audience.

Personally, I liked this novel for what it is.  I feel like when I was much, much younger, I read dozens of books similar to this one. It is somewhat hard to put my finger on what it is, but I can try.  The young main character, Chuck, is an example of the ambitious, curious, and well-raised young man one thinks of when one generalizes about 1950s youth.  He is helpful, good-hearted, and a little awkward.  He also has a lot of skills at his young age that I am not so sure youth of present time have.  He’s practically an expert in electrical work, radar/radio usage, welding, etc.  Simply put, if my spacecraft were hurtling toward Mars and needed serious repairs to the drive-control system, I don’t think I would, honestly, entrust the repairs to some teenager.

There’s not much I can really say about the novel without giving a whole lot of it away in spoilers.  Humans have colonized the moon.  Therefore, humans live on Earth and on the Moon – and a project has been developed in conjunction with both societies to make a trip to the planet Mars.  The Governor at Moon City wins a hard-fought battle to have someone from his colony be present on the trip.  Chuck, who meets many of the requirements, is selected.  The one requirement he does not meet is the lower limit age one.  They want a crew between 18 – 27 years of age.  Chuck is only 17.  So, in spite of all the things Chuck could bring to the team, he is replaced by another young man put forward by the Chinese delegation:  Lew Wong.

The ship is readied and Chuck is brooding and lamenting.  He was exceedingly excited to be headed to Mars, now he has to give his position to Lew.  Now, here is something neat about reading 1950s “juvenile” science fiction.  Even the youth seem bold and brave and not yellow cowards. They seem willing to explore and take on challenges and face risks.  This is an element of these sorts of novels that really keeps them worth reading.  That unabashed curiosity and bravery is always good to, at least, read about.

Anyway, Captain Miles Vance leads the ship to its takeoff from the Moon. But little does he know, there is a stowaway.  And we are led to believe that all the men in the crew rather expected to have a stowaway, but they simply couldn’t endorse this action officially.  Either way, Chuck is part of the crew now.

It isn’t quite a spoiler to say the ship/crew gets marooned on Mars.  So they get there and then they have to set about repairing the ship to leave right away.  This is where the novel lost two full stars in my rating.  What the heck was their plan?  How do you have winches and welders and stuff on this ship and you had no real plans for contingencies or maybe even what you were going to do once you got to Mars – if you had gotten there intact.  I mean, I feel the novel focuses only on the ship’s travel and gives no thought to why they are traveling.

I read this for Vintage Science Fiction month and also because I am spending a lot of time on Mars (my other read….).  Overall, I enjoyed this for what it was.  The middle is a little too slow, the writing is sufficient. A good example of 1950s stuff.  One thing totally worth reading is the little three page essay/introduction by the author.  It’s entitled “Tomorrow’s World” and it does explain the impetus for a lot of the science and psychological milieu in the novel.  It is a fun and interesting little tidbit.  Three stars for vintage-ness, comfort reading, and down-to-earth mellow writing.

3 stars

Captain Future and the Space Emperor

Captain Future – #1; Edmond Hamilton

Vintage Science Fiction Month

If you have heard of Captain Future prior to the TV show The Big Bang Theory, then you are a science fiction nut like myself and many of the bloggers that I know.  (For those who do not know, the characters on the TV show have a poster of Captain Future on their apartment wall.)  Anyway, my blogging friend the little red reviewer encourages us to read Vintage Science Fiction in January.  So I thought about it and selected a few items, one of which is the first “issue/novel” of Captain Future.  Now, I certainly did not go out to any big city comic book store and fetch up an authentic vintage copy.  I read a copy from Amazon.com on my Kindle.  Normally, I do not like to post reviews on items I read on digital readers, but it *is* Vintage Science Fiction month.

Captain Future was created by Mort Weisinger and the stories were generally written by Edmond Hamilton. The stories were published in pulp fiction magazines starting in (I believe) 1940.  The first “issue” that I read (on Kindle, vol. 1) was Captain Future and the Space Emperor.

Now, if you know anything about early pulp magazines/fictions, you know they were really pumped out by their respective authors and are not generally known for their high-minded, highly intellectual, or incredibly detailed writing.  Pulp.  What you get is a rollicking good story, action, adventure, and a neat concise ending.  Back in the day, one might say this was called “fun.”

And it was fun, which is the most I expected out of it.  I had a lot of fun reading it – and it does read oh so quickly.  Captain Future, Curt Newton, is a young lad who was born and raised on the moon.  His parents were killed by evil villains seeking to control their scientific inventions.  Well, Curt was raised, then, by those very “inventions,” to include a giant simple-minded robot, a synthetic “man,” and a brain-in-a-box ex-human.  As I write all of that – I have to admit:  how can any story involving that motley bunch not be filled with fun?!

The story begins by presenting a horrifying situation wherein humans are undergoing some sort of transformation which turns them into beasts.  They are, more or less, devolving into pre-human monsters. I didn’t count, of course, but I think the word “atavism” is used 2 million times in this volume.  The President of Earth calls Captain Future to solve the mystery – Captain Future is, naturally, our last hope!  So, Curt Newton and his crew of non-humans heads off in their fancy spaceship, the Comet, to Jupiter where all this atavisming is going down.

The rest of the story is full of action and adventure, as is to be expected.  I love how Captain Future is always so upbeat, positive, and confident! He can handle anything! No matter what happens, he knows what to do and knows how to solve the problem.  He’s skilled in science, strategy, fighting, etc.  He’s just the hero we need!  It is really charming, I suppose.  However, while 90% of this volume is action and adventure, I would be unfair to the author if I did not point out that there are times where he goes the extra step and “explains” why such-and-such device or science works.  It may not be gritty science and mathematics, but the attempt to give ratio for things is to be commended.  For example, I do not think I have ever read the word “acromegaly” before.  Also, in chapter twenty there is some solid ratio given for how “immaterializers” work – even to explain how acoustics still operate within them.

My favorite sentence:  “He looked up at the full moon that sailed in queenly splendor high above the soaring towers of nighted New York.”   Well, it’s just a hair shy of being purple prose, right? But it also has this fun, splendid way of describing the scene.  Anyway, I do intend to read the next volume and while this is not for those very serious types who read only hard sci-fi, well, it is perfect for people who want to have a fast read with a little vintage charm and a lot of fun.

3 stars

The Falling Astronauts

The Falling Astronauts – Barry Malzberg; ACE, 1971

The Falling Astronauts by Barry Malzberg was first published in 1971.  It is the first Malzberg novel that I have read. I read the ACE edition with cover by Davis Meltzer.

It took me quite a long time to get through this novel.  And I am not going to give it a rave review.  Basically, I think this novel might not really even qualify as actual science fiction, but I am rarely thrilled with such pigeon-holing.  All of the characters are unlikeable, which is fine.  I am used to disliking characters. However, in this particular novel, this is really a significant problem.

The novel is about the repercussions of the government agency in Washington and their space program.  Without being stated, it is obvious Malzberg is alluding to NASA.  Also, it takes place during wartime, presumably the Vietnam War.  Some comparisons are made here between the government and public interest in the war versus the interest in the space program.  Very heavy-handedly, the reader is to understand that the space program regardless of its facade of noble goals or scientific advances is utilitarian in nature.  The agency, in its methods and goals, dehumanizes and devalues humans – the astronauts who actually run the missions are treated as little more than machinery.  Their training turns them into machinery, tools, pieces within a greater (and more important) machine.

However, lest readers feel this is a direct attack on a specific organization, there are indeed hints in the novel that this attitude of the agency is actually a reflection of the entire societal structure within which the space agency operates.  Further, if this is so, a parallel assessment can (in theory) be drawn regarding the soldiers sent off to fight in the war effort.  Several times Malzberg includes references to “the war,” which could suggest this being read as a subtle anti-war novel.

The evidence for the dehumanizing of the astronauts is shown in their emotional and mental breakdowns.  Particularly in the character Richard Martin.  The novel begins with a sex scene – one in which the sex is described to us in very mechanical terminology. Literally:  docking procedure.  Gears, transmission, whines of engines, hiss of static, etc.  And this segues into the depiction of Martin having a ruined marriage.  His wife blames him and, more so, the Agency/Administration.  It has ruined his life, her life, and their life.  How so?  Because he is a machine; dehumanized and mechanical.  On the most recent mission, Martin had a mental breakdown which almost resulted in a significant tragedy.  The actual events were hushed up and when he returned from the mission, he was given treatment as a malfunctioning machine might be given.  Finally, he was proclaimed by the agency to be “all better.”  In reality, he carries extreme post-traumatic stress and he struggles with the remembering the “person” he used to be, as opposed to the mere individual he is now.

Malzberg’s writing is very interesting.  I like the actual style of writing qua writing.  It is remarkable and refreshing – his sentence structure and chapter-structure actually take a little bit to get used to.  I was re-reading a few sentences here and there when I started the novel.  Malzberg also uses a lot of subtle allusions and connotations that you have to pause a breath to consider before racing on.  Nevertheless, the reason why I give this novel such a low rating is because scenes just go on and on and on.  I mean, some of them feel interminable.  The whole novel is quite heavy-handed and with these scenes that just never end, the novel suffers.

Also, as I mentioned above, if the novel is built on the problematic of the agency dehumanizing astronauts, making such unlikeable and miserable characters does not really make me feel any great amount of care or concern for this problem.  I am not saying that is actually what Malzberg was aiming for.  I am just saying that it is hard to connect at all with characters and their problems as a whole when as a reader I just do not give a rip what happens to them, anyway.

There are sections where Malzberg’s wit shows through.  But all the words in between these sections really make the novel even more dismal than the situation it presents.  There are sections where Malzberg has Martin describing the room he is in, the interactions and relationships of the persons in the room, and so forth.  It is at these points that the writing really seems insightful and skilled.  Describing the intangible feelings in the room without seeming emotive or dreadful is tough to do, and I can praise Malzberg for that.

Discussing television/news programming, the character Oakes says:

“You see, as far as I can deduce anyway, these things were so devalued a long time ago that they’re just another kind of television.  People don’t believe what they see on television anymore so this becomes part of the general mix.  It’s very hard to get people really involved these days.  They’ve seen so much.  And television, I’m sorry to say, is a very poor medium for what we like to think of as reality.” – Chapter XXI, pg 175

That is my favorite quote in the book. I like that it is valid in 1971 and in present day.  It’s something to think about, surely, particularly on the topic of the simulacra/simulation theory.  Enter:  Badiou, Deleuze, Zizek.

2 stars

Star King

Star King – Jack Vance; DAW 1978

I finished Star King by Jack Vance yesterday.  It is the fourth Vance novel that I have read and it is the first in his Demon Princes series of novels.  I read the DAW edition (No. 305) from 1978 with cover by Gino D’Achille.  I was not too excited to read this – because I am not feeling like reading a series.  Plus, the tagline “The first of the Demon Princes novels” doesn’t really do much for me.  The cover of my edition is rather amusing – the chubby diaper-wearing dude swinging a lance at spaceman is just silly.

Each chapter is prefaced by a facsimile of some “excerpt” from a book, magazine, report, etc. that is given to explain or give background to some aspect of the storyline.  Some readers did not like this.  I don’t mind it.  It is like data-dumping and being honest about it.  You need to know this, but the author doesn’t want to waste a chapter droning about it. Read these preface pieces and move on with the story.

Anyway, the book begins fairly interestingly.  Smade’s Tavern is a pretty neat thing.  The only building on an entire (rather inhospitable) planet is a tavern/inn where anyone is welcome and there is somewhat of an uneasy truce held.  I have to admit, for better or worse, I kept imagining the Inn of the Last Home and the innkeeper Otik from the Dragonlance series.  I know that that is just offensive to true science fiction/Vance-fans. Sorry.  Anyway, here we meet the main character, he is given his problematic, and introduced to his foes.

The novel feels like a cross between 007 and Clue if it took place in space and presents theories on revenge/vengeance.  The novel does have somewhat of a sluggish start.  I feel like it takes a little bit of patience to read the first two chapters.  And one of my biggest issues of this book is just what the hell the main character Kirth Gersen does/is.  He first says he is a “locator.” Then he says he is not.  Does he or does he not have some connection to the IPCC?  Then we are told he was trained and developed by his grandfather, who wished Kirth to be some sort of roaming anti-hero outlaw-revenger.  But Kirth did get formal training, too, at some institutions.  So, after all of this, I just want some straight answer on this point.

One of the best things about Vance’s writing, particularly in this novel, is the absolute ease with which he moves through his galaxy.  A lot of space opera science fiction novels seem to struggle and really work at trying to get their picture of the galaxy across to us.  Some authors really want to hammer out the “map” and they seem to be working just as hard to remind themselves what the galaxy looks like, too.  Vance does this effortlessly.  He has a whole galaxy mapped out and we move smoothly through it to various points.

It is a really well-written novel.  I like the somewhat wry and flirtatious interlude with Kirth and Pallis.  I like the neat way Kirth deals with the assassin Suthiro.  Vance also writes a very good “mystery” – he also wrote actual mystery novels, even using the famous “Ellery Queen” penname.  So, it is rather interesting to follow along with Kirth Gersen as he “interviews” the other characters and tries to piece together the background.  Finally, I like the carefully-handled science fiction elements.  I liked the projectile weapons, I liked the concept and design of the “Star Kings,” and I really liked the idea of the planet which is a burned-out sun.

Now, there are things that I found odd or disliked. The Stockholm Syndrome weirdness with Robin Rampold and Dasce is a bit…. weird.  It amuses me that Dasce calls himself “Mr. Spock.”  I was glad we got to meet a bunch of characters one-on-one with Kirth, but I was disappointed with how Tristano was dealt with.  A minor complaint.  Finally, Kirth is both adept and skilled, but also gets sucker-punched and fails sometimes.  Maybe this makes him a good all-around character – he possesses flaws as well as skills.  But there’s something about this that seems slightly off-balance.  He gets ambushed by the assassins, but on the other hand manages to pilot a ship with a variety of very difficult persons on it.  I don’t know how familiar you are with road trips, but I can barely go down the street without a measure of pandemonium in the vehicle.  And I like everyone in the car!

Finally, we are constantly told how bad Malagate the Woe is… but when we find out his motive for this particular situation Kirth is dealing with – it is not so “evil,” I guess.  And Vance just gives the reason to us, we nod, and then we move on. I feel like we could have explored this a little bit further without detriment.

Overall, I can see some readers being bored by this.  Maybe too much mystery and too much rumination on the ends of revenge.  However, there is a whole lot of good writing and originality to be found in this novel.  I do want to read onward in the series and I think this was well worth my time.

4 stars

The Languages of Pao

The Languages of Pao – Jack Vance; ACE; 1958

The Languages of Pao is one of Jack Vance’s earlier works, published in 1958.  It is the third Vance novel that I have read, and probably the best so far.  I really enjoyed this novel and am going to give it a high rating.  However, I can see where some readers may not fancy this sort of novel.

This is science fiction for smart people.  In other words, it takes a bit of aptitude to read this and enjoy it for what it is.  If a reader comes to this novel thinking it is something else, they will be aggravated.  The Languages of Pao is not an action novel.  There are, really, only three characters in the novel.  Reader who are used to “growing up with” characters who reside in 10-tome epic fantasies, may find these characters underdeveloped.  I would disagree; they are just not rendered with tedious detail.  Finally, this novel only has the smallest amount of scientific detail.  So, readers who are used to high-tech, mecha stuff might be disappointed.

There is a concept that Vance utilizes in this novel that provides the overarching theme.  Wikipedia proudly proclaims this the linguistic Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.  This particular “hypothesis” was developed by Wilhelm von Humboldt, Franz Boas, and Edward Sapir.  I cannot speak for how familiar our author was regarding these linguistic theories.  I, frankly, am not too familiar with them, although I’ve run across the names of these fellows plenty; particularly in philosophy of language and anthropology.  Humboldt generally comes up in reference to political philosophy.

Anyway, you may be chomping at the bit for me to explain what this Sapir-Whorf concept is.  Well, I’m not going to.  Because that’s what Vance’s book does.  On the planet Pao with main character Beran Panasper.  Let me then, simply, boil this whole thing down to one question:   “What role does language (organic or artificial) play in a social group’s understanding of reality? In other words, how does it shape their lives, nation, and outlook?”

It is okay to admit that the above paragraphs bored you to tears and you have already decided this novel is not for you.  However, understand that Vance is dealing with that linguistic question by working in the science fiction genre.  So, Vance selects three main facets of society (represented by the Paonese, the Breakness, and the Brumbos) to cause havoc on the planet Pao.  All of this gets situated within the political scheming/intrigue of the ambitious characters.  It is like Dune – without all of the sandworms, blue-eyes, and crazy witches.  But nevertheless, I see a lot of parallels between the two novels.  And the “villain” is not really a bad guy from all perspectives.  Plus, he’s the one that comes with the neat “modifications” – (surgical enhancements to his person).

I love Vance’s use of vocabulary.  I appreciate how he works with a linguistic concept without making his novel overlong or bludgeoning the reader (Mieville, looking at you, son).  I neither loved nor hated the characters, but I was interested to see what happened.  And maybe this is not the most exciting read in science fiction, but it surely is one of the more intelligent and well-written.  The only complaint is that it seems set up too artificially, almost as a too-carefully controlled experiment.  But on the other hand, what author doesn’t do this?

5 stars

The Crossroads of Time

The Crossroads of Time – Andre Norton; ACE 1980

This morning I finished The Crossroads of Time by Andre Norton (1912 – 2005).  It was originally published in 1956.  The edition that I read is the ACE 1980 version.

Chapter one is a really good example of how to get the reader engaged in a book straightaway.  Instead of giving us a long lead-up or background, we meet the main character in a hotel room. By page two, we meet a gunman, and by page three the main character is a bit of a hero.  Hello, Blake Walker – your life is about to change. Thanks for rescuing Agent Kittson.

Anyway, after reading the first chapter, I basically knew that I would be in for a penny, in for a pound, so to speak. Blake Walker is thrust, by his having been a bit of a hero in the hotel hallway, into a new paradigm in which he learns that travel between his world and parallel worlds is possible.  He learns that there are criminals who are intent on traveling betwixt worlds in order to cause mayhem and distort those worlds’ natural progression of history.  Blake also learns that there are psi’s – persons who have advanced mental capabilities such as telepathy and telekinesis, etc.  In fact, Blake may actually be a psi.  So much for going to art school. . . .

Overall the writing is fast-paced and the story tends to feel like an action thriller.  There is some science fiction in here – but only as a background skeleton to the story itself.  For example, not a whole lot is detailed out on how/why some of these scientific items operate.  They just do.

Unfortunately, there are some flaws in the book.  For example, chapter four.  I have no idea what happens in that chapter – and I read it thrice.  I just could not figure out what happened. Sometimes, writing “action” scenes is tricky.  At least comic book writers have help from their artists to help show you what is going on.  Another thing, the title…. well, since this is not time travel (Cp. Quantum Leap), but rather traveling laterally across a variety of parallel worlds, I feel that the title is misleading.  It is not the crossroads of time.  Finally, other than Blake and Kittson, the other characters kind of blend together and are not really all that distinct or memorable.  I know this is a short-action piece, but maybe a little more distinction between characters would have helped the novel not seem so jumbled at points.

In any case, I am glad I read this.  I had fun.  It was a decent read.  But I wish it were a little bit better.  As I understand it, there is something of a “sequel” as well, though I do not own it.  A good read for someone who just needs a little science fiction and does not want to invest too much into a story.  I admit, I’m probably being a little bit harsh with this one.

2 stars

Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks; Orbit 2008

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks was first published in 1987 and is the author’s first science fiction novel.  It’s title comes from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.  It has, since then, been generally accepted as being “space opera.”  It is also the first in Banks’ Culture series of novels. I read the 2008 Orbit edition.

I really liked much of this book, but I also didn’t like some things about it.  First of all, I felt the first three chapters were interesting and I was a little unsure of who was doing what why – but it was full of action.  I, therefore, expected the novel to be more of the same.  But then it seemed that whole chunk was over suddenly and now we were reading a new, but similar, story. (The chapters introducing the Clean Air Turbulence.)  I felt that we had left the first storyline a little behind, but that was okay because this new “story” aboard the Clean Air Turbulence was interesting.  The main character gets to stay aboard this “Free Mercenary/Trade” ship if he wins a fight.  Okay, I’m invested in the main character – go Horza! Win the fight!

Then there are chapters wherein the pirate ship attempts a mission.  They are severely under-geared for this event and the mission fails. I actually did not really like this section because I was not sure what we were supposed to glean from it besides meeting characters.  Nevertheless, the pirates try again – the captain has a new mission for his crew.  They are going to the Orbital Vavatch – a ringworld.  And having read Niven’s Ringworld, I was all good with this sort of construct.  This was actually interesting for awhile, but ends poorly for many characters.

Insert new storyline:  Horza survives and ends up on island of crazy cannibal weirdos.  This is the part of the book that lots of reviewers like to comment on.  It has a lot of graphic imagery, but it is definitely creative and well, I hate to say it again, but it was interesting.  Next section:  the Damage game.  This part is a good example of something I disliked about this novel. There is a lot of build up to certain things.  However, the events seem to fall flat a bit.  The Damage game was probably my favorite section of the book.  Banks explains it well, gives us motives and concepts, and makes the whole thing seem really exciting.  And there’s a lot of elements here that make it unique and creative.  But overall, there’s something missing from it.  There’s something missing that would take it from good to great.  The trippy-LSD parts with Horza and his experience as a “changer” is different – especially the vague connection between him and Kraiklyn.

Horza’s adventures continue. We’re headed back to Schar’s World to capture the Mind.  I am not entirely sure why we are after the Mind – except in the very general sense of the war between the Idirans and the Culture.  Throughout the novel, we are given little interludes wherein we meet the Mind.  These interludes are somewhat tedious and somewhat interesting.  Sometimes they seem rambling and at other times, they seem to be really good at showing us the Mind.  I’m rather torn on whether these are well written or not.  Anyway, this last chunk of the novel is very action-oriented, except, really the last sixty pages, or so, is all build up for a very speedy ending.

The ending comes quickly, I guess I cared about the characters sufficiently, but I was not really upset or affected by anything that happened. There were several elements that were kind of just thrown in there to make it seem like small detailed twists. For example, Yalson’s pregnancy – I don’t really see how that’s anything other than the author trying to force a little plot twist.  The Idiran Xoxarle is a decent enemy, I suppose, but I really feel that he is there (this late in the novel) to finally give us some sense of the other major group in the war – the Idirans.  Up until meeting him, the Idirans are introduced via Horza’s thoughts about them.  But my biggest complaint was that for the whole last chunk of the book – the Mind – which was this amorphous entity with deep thoughts – now is reduced to a non-entity object.  It is incongruous.  I wanted another “interlude” regarding the Mind.

I really didn’t care for most of the chapters with Fal ‘Ngeestra.  I think they are there to get us to understand The Culture.  Which they did.  But also, the chapters seemed rambling and somewhat tangential.  I don’t know.  They served their purpose, but I guess I just didn’t really care for them.  Nevertheless, I really liked the drone. All readers seem to like the drone. (Personally, I think we all think of C3-PO from Star Wars and Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

I liked this novel – though I seem to be complaining a bit about it.  I really did enjoy it, even if it isn’t the greatest science fiction novel ever.  I liked a lot of what Banks did.  I liked the Culture concepts, the Idiran concepts, the Mind, etc.  I enjoyed a lot of the action scenes and the galaxy they are in.  The characters grow on the reader – but when Banks kills them off, it’s quick and to the point and we move on quickly.  I wanted to get to know more about several characters, but it didn’t happen, which was a little disappointing.  Fans of space opera will enjoy this novel.  I want to give it 3.5 stars, but I think I’m going to go with 3 stars.  Honestly, if you twist my arm on days that start with S or T, maybe I’ll give it 4 stars. If I tilt my head left, 3 stars, but if I tilt it right, then I give the novel 4 stars. This is a tough book for me to rate.  There’s a lot of good and some not-so-good.  Nevertheless, I definitely want to read more of Banks’ Culture series.

3 stars

Rynn’s World

Rynn’s World – Steve Parker; Black Library; 2010

I am a Warhammer 40k addict. I don’t expect you to be.  But I love me some space marine vs. ork battles, ships lost in the warp, xenos screams of hate, and prayers to the Emperor.  Of the Warhammer 40k novels, the Space Marine Battles seem to be a little lower on the “literature” scale than, say, the Horus Heresy stuff.  But none of it, really, is high-class stuff. And I am perfectly okay with that.

Rynn’s World is pure fluff.  It’s full of action scenes, space marines lumbering around in their armor, the rather one-track-mindedness of characters, the repetitive storytelling style that reminds you orks are bad and space marines are good, etc.  And I love it. It’s like brain candy.  All you have to do is turn the page and you do not need to analyze, discuss the levels of meta-fiction, or worry about the symbolic meaning of anything. You just read while the space marines just shoot. It’s glorious science fiction pulp.

This is the first Space Marines Battles novel released by Black Library. Rynn’s World was written by Steve Parker and released in 2010.  Parker is actually a pretty cool dude – he lives in Japan and is a beefy bodybuilder.  He is into environmental concerns and he isn’t just an iron head.  He has not yet written dozens of books, but this one was a decent read for the genre.  I hope he writes more.

Rynn’s world is about the homeworld of the Space Marines chapter, the Crimson Fists.  If you have no idea what I am talking about, let me oversimplify:  there are dozens of “chapters” of space marines.  Each chapter has their “thing.”  This particular chapter wears power armor where their gauntlets are mechanized and “powered” – and crimson red in color.  There you have the basics.  It was fun to read about this chapter because they are one of the more famous ones.  However, they certainly take a real hit in this novel – their homeworld is attacked by a gigantic warforce of Orks. Orks are green and brown skinned monsters who like to slay and who also have a fondness for motor bikes.

Pedro Kantor is the chapter master of the Crimson Fists.  This means, basically, he’s the general in charge.  We follow, more or less, him through the battle.  Therefore, we are privy to his hopes, worries, fears, and decision-making.  Not only does he have to deal with ork invaders, but the welfare of the human citizens of the planet also weighs heavily on his shoulders.  This sets up a sort of moral dilemma – his official protocols dictate that he serves the Emperor first, particularly in battle by destroying xenos bad guys.  So, how does Kantor deal with also having to play something of the rescue/protector role regarding humans?

And then, there is the whole drama with his friend, the lower-ranked captain Alessio Cortez. Cortez is a fiery, aggressive character who is an excellent space marine, but who gets impatient a lot.  Cortez rarely sees the bigger picture, so to speak. Kantor has to balance being Cortez’ friend and being his chapter master.  Some of this storyline is also developed early on when a scout endangers space marines by failing to strictly obey protocol.  Discipline and obedience are the buzzwords here.  Anyway, the good part of all of this is that the novel does actually have some subplots and does touch, however briefly, onto some interesting moral questions.

Nevertheless, this novel is about space marines going to battle against orks.  It may seem juvenile or pedestrian to some readers – but I wasn’t expecting anything more than some good old bolt gun explosions, ork war cries, and descriptions of azure power armor.  The joy of reading anything WH40k is that orks get smashed. Ork smashing is good and good for you.  I’m giving this novel three stars – because it is exactly what it purports to be and met all expectations.  Granted, we won’t be reading this in English Lit – but on the other hand – we don’t want to be. We’d actually rather be donning our power armor and firing up the lasguns!

3 stars

Big Planet

Big Planet

Big Planet by Jack Vance; Ace & TOR

I finished Big Planet by Jack Vance tonight.  January is Vintage Science Fiction month – as sponsored and encouraged by Little Red Reviewer on her blog.  This is the second Vance novel I have read.  Big Planet was first published in 1957 by Avalon/Ace.   The novel had some revisions and whatnot and was re-released in 1978.  The copy that I read was the TOR 1989 edition.  I took an actual photo (with my phone) of my two copies – the Ace 1967 and the TOR 1989.  I owned the Ace and then found the TOR for only $2 so decided to use that as my “reading copy.”  The cover art for the Ace is by Ed Emshwiller (very famous) and the TOR art is by David Hardy.  Since it’s Vintage Science Fiction month, I thought I’d read this novel because it’s quite vintage and well known.

Overall, this is a rather ridiculous novel.  It does show it’s age.  There are a couple of interesting moments, but overall it’s nothing fantastic.  I say this having read the novel in 2013.  I don’t know how this read to someone in 1960, let’s say.   The main complaints are as follows:  characters are flat and empty, viewpoint regarding women is decidedly not feminist, and the story reads like an extended Star Trek “away team mission.”

Big Planet – a horribly heavy-handed name which states the obvious – is a planet that absorbed the diaspora of cultures from Earth; cultures that were exiled or unwilling to accept Government Rule.  After hundreds of years, the original “culture groups” that arrived on Big Planet spread out, intermingled, and developed.  Thus, the inhabitants are earth-like cultures, but yet they are scattered and have no singular ruling body governing them.  Instead, there is an Earth Enclave, which is presumably a base of some sort where Earth periodically sends commissions to interact with Big Planet and its cultures.  An embassy of sorts, I suppose.

The novel begins with a commission en route to Big Planet.  We meet the characters rapidly and without any finesse.  The ship is attacked (from within) and brought down far from its destination at Earth Enclave.  The survivors find themselves stranded in a village.  It is estimated that they are at least 40,000 miles from Earth Enclave.  Big Planet has many resources, but metal (ore) is not one of them.  Therefore, at least to start, the survivors are relatively wealthy.  However, without much further ado, they all agree to trek off to Earth Enclave.  This is obviously just to get the story moving forth – but let’s consider this further.  Stranded (after a crash landing) in a primitive culture 40,000 miles away from base, with very little in the way of supplies or implements, this group of eight fellas decides that it is a good idea to head out. And, interestingly, the main character, Claude Glystra just assumes command.  He suddenly becomes the leader of the band and not one of the others really even questions this.  We aren’t even given any background on Glystra to help with this.  Perhaps he is ex-military or something – but we get nothing to assist with the suddenness of his command-taking.

So the group sets off. And right away there is this tag-a-long girl who seems really naive and helpless.  Make that a count of nine.  But then not too long after, adventures begin because this group is attacked. Basically, its all a big plot to take down this commission by some dude named Charley Lysidder.  Lysidder employs armies, spies, and religious-types to help him recapture Glystra.  I highly doubt Glystra is really that big of a threat.  Why go to all this trouble? Even if this guy makes it 40,000 battling the natural and exotic perils, what can he possibly do then besides complain to Earth about Big Planet? Ultimately, Big Planet is really beyond the scope of Earth’s rule, anyway. And what does Glystra care?  A moral code is about the only reason he has to stop Lysidder, at first. Finally, a sense of revenge or personal justice plays in.  Basically, the whole premiss of the novel is a bit forced and stretched.

There is one interesting culture that we meet in the novel.  The Kirstendale city is maintained by an interesting populace.  They keep their wherewithal a secret and it takes Glystra awhile to piece it altogether. Nevertheless, it’s an opulent city full of manufactured intrigue and facade.  Ultimately, it would be interesting to investigate this city and expand this into a series of stories or something.  It’s about the only thing creative in the novel, to be honest.

Anyway, Glystra’s group’s numbers dwindle as they deal with threats and peril. Most of the time they are riding on six-legged beasts called zipangotes.  These are like dinosaur, horse, panther things.  They can be used to ride or as pack-animals.  Generally, the “nomadic” races use them to ride around on and raid and terrorize everyone else on the planet.  The other way the group travels is by monoline.  One of the things Vance does in this novel is periodically give us rather intense descriptions of mechanical things.  He uses fairly technical terms and describes them just as if one were seeing them with one’s own sight. Unfortunately, I was unable to really get a picture of any of these things in my mind. I don’t know if I wasn’t focused or if I just could not get the words sorted out. Anyway, Vance clearly had something in mind and tried to get us to understand these mechanical things, too. The monoline is like a trolley that ports people by sail and gravity by “air” across a huge stretch of land. Traders use it, too, and knowing this, the monoline gets attacked a lot by hostiles.

The ending was predictable and the villain was obnoxious and yucky.  I am glad I read the novel, because I love reading and I love science fiction.  However, there is not a whole lot in here that can be recommended to readers in 2013.  It’s a short read. Not very sweet.

3 stars

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